Kenya might not be the first country that jumps to mind when you think about countries with a thriving rock and metal scene. But, according to young Nairobi-based band REFUGE, they are part of a growing rock revolution in the East African country.
This is the first band we’ve spoken to from Kenya and only the second that is based in Africa, so we were pleasantly pleased to hear that rock is up and coming in the country. And it sounds like we might need to get ourselves out there. As the band explain: “There is something happening here in Kenya that the world should know about. We are one of many rock bands here. Our style may be more classic rock-ish than some of the other bands, but they are all talented and cover the entire spectrum of rock music – from folk rock to death metal. Someone needs to get down here and discover what is happening… these bands are too good to go unnoticed!”
REFUGE offer up a high-energy, guitar-driven rock n’ roll sound influenced by the Blues and classic rock greats of the ’60s and ’70s. The band – whose members range from 13 to 16-years-old and come from Bolivia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the US, UK and Kenya – in a sound that they describe as “conscious, gritty and analogue.”
They’re a welcome reminder that great music is still being made by musicians without the aid of technology. As they explain: “Let’s start a revival of righteous music. Algorithms should not determine what we listen to. Music is not a formula. It’s an environment; it’s emotion and nuance and inspiration. There is so much great stuff out there… we need to push against all the mainstream hype and frivolous pop. Change is gonna come!”
The band is formed of six best friends and family that met at the International School of Kenya in Nairobi. The members’ parents all work in humanitarian relief and development, and the band started out when guitarists Patrick and Gabe and drummer Silas got together for a random jam session.
As the band explain: “At the time, Patrick and Gabe were in 7th grade and Silas was in 6th. To our surprise, we found that we weren’t actually terrible; the humble beginnings of any band! That motivated us to start learning some songs, play them for friends, and eventually test our courage on stage at school socials and other events. Over time, we developed a very clear preference for the Blues, riff-driven rock, improvisation, and lots of jamming.”
That led to expanding the bandwith the addition of vocals from Teresa along with Ben on bass and Ike on organ/piano. Expanding on the band’s origins, they tell us: “We all have different musical origins and degrees of formal training, but the main factor behind our passion for music are our parents. Patrick/Teresa’s and Gabe’s dads in particular drove us to love the Blues, classic rock, jam bands, funk and reggae. There was a ’70s taste to our interests right from the beginning.
“The simple origins of the band are when Patrick won the middle school talent show in 6th grade with a solo performance of Iron Man on electric guitar. Gabe and Silas were there, turned to each other and said ‘You think we should start a band with him?'”
The band have been working together for around two years, building up the confidence in writing their own tracks and learning plenty about music generally by playing, in their words, “a ridiculous amount and variety of covers.” And that preparation has given them a strong foundation for excellent songwriting.
For example, their debut original track is a power guitar track called Gone Astray. Since then they’ve written more than 30 original songs and self-produced nine of those on last year’s debut EP Haven to a Heavy Soul.
There are two versions of Gone Astray on the EP, with the original being a longer, extended version. Check out a live rendition of it in the video below:
The EP opens up with the excellent A Brighter Sun, which begins with a cool little laid-back guitar lick, which continues once guitar chords kick in and support Teresa’s vocals. It builds up to a chorus dominated by Teresa’s drawn-out vocals then drops into a cool little instrumental section, then a relaxing verse. Give this delicious track a listen below, and listen out for an awesome extended guitar solo that brings it to a close:
And the band’s musical quality really comes to the fore on the EP’s final track Run Through. The instrumental track sees them enter full-on 70s mode with delicious guitar solos over organs and big drums.
On their musical approach, they tell us: “Learning covers played an important role in teaching us about song composition. Once we had the courage, we wrote Gone Astray. Its lyrics were motivated by all of the overly-digital and inauthentic music that fills our airways.
“Our frustration with modern music was why we called ourselves REFUGE in the first place. Lyrically, all of our songs are about wanting a more righteous world, one that cares about those in need and realises that love and compassion are the best parts of humanity… and we need more of it.”
The band’s music is inspired by a broad range of influences both new and old, and they list the likes of Allman Brothers Band, Santana, Ten Years After, Led Zepellin, Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, The Eagles, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, as well as and Blues greats like Buddy Guy, Elmore James and Albert King.
And the band add: “Ironically enough, one of our favourite modern bands is an American reggae band called Groundation. We don’t play their genre of music, but they still provide plenty of inspiration.”
There’s plenty more to come from REFUGE this year, but they tell us they’re on a mission to be ‘discovered.’ “It’s hard being a classic rock band in Kenya,” they explain. “There’s a small music scene here and no access (or exposure) to folks in the industry. We know that rock n’ roll is coming back, and we have seen modern bands like Greta Van Fleet capitalise on that.
“We have something to contribute as well, and are confident that fans will dig us once they see us live. So our main goal is to get some international gigs, ideally in the US and Europe. Only with that kind of exposure do we expect record companies to start having interest… and once they find us, we have a ton of great songs to produce!”